Speak Your Piece: My Own ‘Big Sort’
Bill Bishop's book on cultural segregation comes alive — fiercely — for Tom Sexton when he mixes it up in Ohio. Hold the ketchup!
When lifestyles clash, even a well-intentioned guest may lose his cool
Image: via Hot Diggety Blog
“If you want, my Aunt Vicky and my Uncle John are having a cookout at their house, then we can go see the fireworks downtown.”
That was the proposal from my girlfriend, Kami, for what sounded like a lovely way to spend the 4th of July holiday in her hometown of Mansfield, one of Ohio's 60 billion mid-sized cities.
In retrospect, we probably should have just gone to the Mansfield Cinemark and watched Ed Norton try and redeem the Incredible Hulk movie franchise with his 2008 version. Marvel botched the first adaptation since the Lou Ferrigno days, in 2002. Besides, you've seen one fireworks show you've seen them all, right?
The cookout, however, seemed like a great opportunity to meet her family, and while I can take or leave fireworks, I've never shied away from hamburgers and hot dogs.
We've all heard the old adage: You don't discuss two things — religion and politics. I had no idea how these two themes would dominate this Independence Day.
I knew Kami's parents were conservative business people. Kami's stepfather, Roger, had been a partner with his nephew in a telecommunications business previously, and is now the owner of two pizzerias called Gionino's, as well as being a partner in a golf course venture. And since they're from Ohio, where even the working class has been known to vote overwhelmingly Republican in the past, I sort of had a pre-conceived notion as to where their political sensiblilities lay. While my own politics resonate more with the Obama set, I could get along fine with Kami's parents. They didn't talk politics much other than her mom urging me to consider the hokey Internet campaign pegging Obama as a Muslim radical, and possible anti-Christ, which we sort of joked about.
It would be later at her aunt and uncle's house when the gloves would come off.
Sacred Heart of Jesus, Whitesburg, Kentucky
Photo: Tom Sexton
I was raised in the hills, near the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky, in a single parent household, with my mother and sister, and we lived in the public housing system until I was 13. We attended the Whitesburg Church of God every Sunday, a charasmatic/pentacostal type house of worship, where parishoners frequently spoke in tounges, never handled snakes, and on one occasion alledgedly cast a demon out of a woman, although my mother and I were not in attendance for that one. My mom was a socially conservative Democrat (as are many in my neck of the woods) who had family employed by the TVA, and so when I registered to vote, I registered Democrat. I didn't know any better at the time. The extent of my political education was this: Bill Clinton rules, George W. Bush sucks, and my family had always voted Democratic in national elections.
Later on, I realized that the Democratic party was indeed the party closest to my sentiments — sentiments that Kami's aunt and uncle did not share.
Mansfield, one of Ohio's aforementioned 60 billion mid-sized cities, is surrounded by several smaller towns. The particular community we were going to was Madison. When we pulled into town, I felt a bad vibe. I saw countless “W” bumper stickers and a guy walking down the sidewalk sporting a “Let's Roll” t-shirt. When we pulled up to Kami's aunt and uncle's house, the first thing I saw was a light-blue Jeep with a “W” bumper sticker; directly under that was a “Jesus is the Way” bumper sticker, and the license plate was custom with a random verse from the Bible's book of John printed on it (it wasn't 3:16 like you would have expected). In this neighborhood almost everybody had a “Westwood Alliance Church” sticker on their car.
I have no gripe with God, or Christians. I firmly believe what Jesus said: “Love thy neighbor, as thyself.” Although more and more in America that's becoming much easier because our neighbors are ourselves. However, I can't stand right-wing evangelicals who casually forget that when Clinton left office we had the biggest budget surplus in history but are even quicker to point out the stigma of Democrats as baby-killers and gay supporters.
I knew I was in for a fight. I didn't want to be contrary and argumentive, I just wanted to meet some people, eat a burger and some potato salad and get out, but Kami gave me the heads up that her Uncle John would definitely talk religion and maybe politics. Ugh.
A few days earlier, Kami's Aunt Vicky, who I feel is a good-hearted woman, had quizzed me on my religious beliefs. Kami had told her I was raised pentacostal. First question out of the gate: “So what's up with this speaking in tongues stuff?” I turned to Kami and gave her my how-the-hell-do-you-answer-that? face. It wasn't like I was living at the foot of the cross. It's just something people in my church did coming up. So I mumbled something my mom would say about being in the spirit, and tried to change the subject. I didn't take offense, but it was more than a little awkward.
Awkward wouldn't even begin to describe the cookout.
When I stepped on the porch I was greeted by a shorter man with brown hair, sporting a sleeveless t-shirt that read “Jesus: That's My Answer,” with a gold crucifixion pendant on a gold rope chain proudly displayed atop his shirt.
We exchanged pleasantries, and then he made a comment about my shirt, which was made by artist Shepard Fairey's clothing company Obey. Fairey uses a lot of illuminati-esqe, anti-establishment imagery in his work, which I thought was cool. This guy thought it was satanic. I once again gave Kami my, what-the-hell? look as she whispered in my ear to confirm what I already suspected: I had just met Uncle John.
We went in and sat at the dinner table and I met many people who I hadn't before. Including three of Kami's cousins, including Crystal, who with her husband Ted had three beautiful red-headed children named Ruth, Lilly, and Theo. Ruth kept putting Hannah Montana stickers on me which creeped me out, not because this cute little ginger kid was doing it, but because I've had a weird phobia of stickers since childhood in addition to my phobia of constantly being offered a bite of her hot dog with ketchup on it. Another thing that's creeped me out since youth: hot dogs with ketchup.
Nothing like condiments to bring out human differences
Also in attendance was Kami's cousin Kandice, who is the daughter of Vicky and John and whose boyfriend Harold is black. I couldn't help but wonder how Vicky and John felt about that one, although Kami assured me that it wasn't an issue.
So I'm sitting at the kitchen table giving it the fake smile, look around, trying not to make awkward eye-contact, trying to look blissfully disconnected like I'm really so interested in my surroundings, when John pricks my aloof bubble with the first of many unsettling theological questions: “So what's up with this tongue-talking stuff?” Now, where had I heard this before?
My reply was the same as when Vicky had asked me days earlier, a mumble about something I really didn't know an awful lot about. That was John's segue into more uncomfortable conversation.
John: “So how do you know you're saved?”
Me: “Um, well, I think you gotta believe in Jesus, and…”
John: “Yeah, we know that, but how do you get there?”
Me: “Get where?”
John: “What steps do you take to get saved?”
Me: “Hold that thought….”
I faked like my cell phone was ringing in my pocket and stepped on to the porch to call my mom. That conversation went something like this:
Me: “Mom, I need help….”
Me: “Yes, it's your only son.”
Mom: “I can't hear you, you're breaking up. I'll be at the house in about two hours or so call me back.”
In two hours or so I could be sitting on the couch watching VeggieTales, and or even ““ gasp ““ Bibleman with the ginger babies!
So after I regained my composure I walked back in and eased back in to my seat.
“So where were we?” John asked.
“I've got an idea,” Kandice, Kami's cousin interjected, sensing my discomfort– Why don't we play Apples and Apples? she suggested.
Apples to Apples, party game
Photo: Joe Schmidt
For those of you who may not know, Apples and Apples is a card game where each player is dealt cards with adjectives on them. The dealer then turns over a card from another deck that has nouns on them. All the players lay down an adjective card that they best feel complements the noun on the card. The dealer then becomes the judge and picks the best noun/adjective combo, and then whoever laid the best adjective down gets a point. The deal rotates and the first one to five points wins.
So the game started and the theological discussion subsided ““ for a while. Throughout the game John made little religious quips.
During one round of the game, John played the adjective card “tainted” on the noun “America.” His reasoning? “All the pornography.”
Forgive me for thinking that there are more divisive forces at work in this country than the adult film industry. I became increasingly disgusted. For some reason I was just irked by the notion that to these people, the issues of porn, and gay marriage took precedence over the fiscal irresponsibility of the current administration and an unpopular war.
During the game I successfully weaseled my way around John's questioning, but now that play had stopped, John regrouped, and I had decided that I'd had enough. I was going to beat him at his own game. Instead of answering his questions, I simply rebutted everytime; I wanted him to explain himself for once.
“So how do you feel about predestination?” John asked.
“You mean like John Calvin, God decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell before we're even born type stuff?” I asked.
“Well, we know that's true by what Paul said, when he said that God predestined…..”
I cut him off. “So then what's the point of you trying to get me to come to church then? If I'm going to hell, I'm going to hell anyway by that logic.”
“You need to read your Bible.” John said.
“Well, is that not what you're telling me?” I asked.
“Yeah….so what television preachers do you listen to?” John said, changing the subject.
“Joel Osteen seems to be a pretty good cat,” I said.
“My God, you really need to rethink who you listen to. I got some materials I'd like for you to take home and listen to,” John said.
Before Kami and I left I had to get my last jab in. On the counter on the way out of the house I saw a pamphlet written by right wing minister, Norman Vincent Peale.
Norman Vincent Peale and Joel Osteen: Which pastor's for you?
Photos: Roger Higgins (Peale) and Jessica Kourkounis (Osteen)
I turn to John as I'm leaving and tell him how I'd read a book titled God in the White House by historian Randall Balmer, about how Peale, Billy Graham, and some other noted evangelicals of the time held secret meetings to smear Bobby Kennedy, and then Hubert Humphrey after Kennedy's death, and basically conspired to get Nixon the Christian vote. Graham later apologized for his part in the conspiracy. Peale to my knowledge did not. After I explained this to John, he handed the pamphlet off to his wife Vicky and told her to do something with it.
I felt vindicated, but John, not to be outdone by a “Godless” liberal, handed me stacks of CD's that, I kid you not, if stacked straight up on top of one another would stand at least two feet tall. They were all sermons that had been recorded by a pastor with the last name Rose. The sermon on top was titled “Your Best Life When?,” an obvious shot at Joel Osteen's popular book Your Best Life Now. I took the tapes, although they are still sitting in Kami's car trunk. However, I popped the one entitled “Your Best Life When?” in the CD deck of her car, and it was exactly what I thought it would be. An old preacher (from his photo on the CD, Pastor Rose is a bitter man), was saying, and I quote: “If you believe this 'Best Life Now' stuff, not only will this life be miserable, but your afterlife will be spent in flames.”
Heavy stuff, but I thought. Try telling that to Joel Osteen. He's sold millions of books and seems to be the happiest guy in the world on TV. I ejected the CD and threw it in the backseat.
What I learned that day was this ““ even the most noble among us fall victim to the big sort.
Would I ever even consider living in that neighborhood in Madison, Ohio? Not a snowball's chance in hell. But that proves the point of the sort. You throw a Prius-driving, gay couple in that neighborhood and the residents would probably smear lambs' blood on the doorways to keep their first borns safe. On the flip side, would my girlfriend's aunt and uncle live on the other side of Mansfield, where Panera Bread, Starbucks, the Mansfield Cinemark, and a Barnes & Noble sit adjacent to a residential development where residents shun big trucks for hybrids? Highly doubtful.
After we left the cookout, the fireworks were over.
“What do you want to do?” Kami asked me.
“If we hurry we can catch the 11 o'clock showing of the Hulk.”